the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Experimental

THAT’S WRONG, YOU’RE RIGHT

Cutting glare from the outside of a glass building with a circular polarizing filter

….and using the same filter to create effects on glass from within the same structure.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, YOU ARE A DEDICATED  RULEBREAKER, you may view every new piece of equipment as a double opportunity….a chance to explore gear both in the way the manufacturer intended (see the user manual) and in whatever intuitive (spelled “wrong”) way you see fit (we don’t need no stinkin’ manual).

This is not as perverse as it first sounds. Shooters have been flipping telephotos backwards to create makeshift macros and partially uncoupling glass from camera bodies to “free lens” their way to selective blurring and distortion for eons. And you yourself can no doubt recount instances in which your gear has been persuaded to go off the rails to achieve some experimental end or other. Good photographers vascillate wildly between I hope I’m doing this right and I wonder what would happen if  I….

One of my favorite departures from normal practice involves circular polarizing filters, typically used to either deepen the blue of skies or remove reflective glare from surfaces like water or glass. In the image at the top of this page, it’s used in exactly that way, allowing me to view a huge fishy fossil in Los Angeles’ Museum Of Natural History. In the lower image, both the vantage point and the effect of the filter are reversed: I’m looking outwards, with the CPF producing imaginary streaky artifacts on the glass, adding dramatic framing accents to the fossil and breaking up the monotony of a large patch of sky. Is this the recommended use for the filter? Nope. Does this approach work for just any picture? Nah. Am I glad to be able to produce this look at will? Yes, please.

Around the house, driving a nail with the butt end of a screwdriver can seem, well, desperate. But in photography, stretching equipment beyond its intended use can be an adventure. It’s actually freeing, as if you’re playing hooky and getting away with it.

So, when the spirit moves you, choose the right tool. Then use it wrong. But only in the right way.

 


NOTHING MEANS EVERYTHING

 

On days when I have nothing to shoot, that's what I shoot.

On days when you have nothing to shoot, trying  to turn that “nothing” into something can be productive.  1/20 sec., f/5.6, ISO 250, 35mm. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME OF YOUR MOST FORWARD-THINKING DEVELOPMENT AS A PHOTOGRAPHER CAN OFTEN OCCUR on days when you’ve planned exactly…nothing. You may have noticed that you produce an occasional masterpiece in situations where there was “nothing to shoot” or you “didn’t have anywhere special to go.” Phrases like I was just wandering around are sometimes used by people describing how their favorite images wound up inside the camera.

What I’m saying is that, if making something out of nothing is the classic definition of creativity, go find yourself some nothing.. and shoot it.

There’s a strange paradox at play here. When you are photographing something that truly “matters”, your concentration is on the subject, not your technique, almost as if the thing will record itself if you just faithfully point the camera. Kids’ birthday parties or a view of El Capitan come “ready to eat” in a way, and you don’t fester about doing anything bold on your side of the equation. The task becomes, basically, not to screw up….hardly a recipe for excellence. When the subject matter is incomplete, however, or, more importantly, meaningless to you, the work is much harder and more mindful. Say what?

The emphasis shifts to how do I make something out of this, which whips you into a more deliberately creative mode. Suddenly there are things to overcome, from lighting to lousy composition. There are things to improve, since the subject isn’t supplying its own drama or beauty and needs you to shape it. It’s strange. The things that matter most can cause you to take the most lax approach to recording them, while the junk you shot just because it was there can get your juices going.

More importantly, since the “meaningless” is generally unknown to you, you don’t bring any biases to it. You don’t have a usual or traditional way of seeing it (you don’t care about it, remember?) , so you don’t fall into lazy habits or a usual way of photographing it. Its newness makes you innovate, makes you work harder to (here comes the chorus) make something out of nothing.

It’s when you have the most organic, most open attitude toward what you’re shooting that you feel relaxed enough to experiment, which speeds up your learning curve and deepens your involvement. And that means better pictures, since you take yourself, as well as the camera, off automode.

 


UNBOUND BY REALITY

It's A Mall World, After All: iphone panoramics make good design tools, but they ain't about realism.

It’s A Mall World, After All: iPhone panoramics make good design tools, but they ain’t about realism.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PANORAMAS WERE DEVELOPED IN PAINTING, AND LATER IN PHOTOGRAPHY, to alter, not capture, reality. This is one of those man-over-nature struggles that thrilled 19th-century brainiacs. Consider: both mediums are hemmed in by physical limits. The frame can only be so big. The wall can only go so wide. Sadder still, there are limits to the width of human vision, which is why our neck swivels from side to side, giving us the ability to tilt our head attentively when our wives whisper something pertinent to us during the third act of The Barber Of Seville.

So, panos were a fascinating fakery from the start, an attempt to compensate for our limited senses and the cramped confines of the frame, providing no less a warp of reality than a kaleidoscope or 3-d. They were great for showing the broad sweep of the Battle of Gettyburg or the entire breadth of the Coney Island Boardwalk, but the emphasis, historically, was always on closely simulating reality, in that objects were photographed in their natural proportions from left to right and focus was always pinsharp from near objects to the horizon. In other words, “real” phoniness instead of exaggerated phoniness (huh?).

Old school: a panoramic plate camera from the 1800's.

Old school: a panoramic plate camera from the 1800’s.

Now, however, with self-stitching panoramic software in phone cameras, we have a process that actually accentuates unreality, and that can be interesting. Ideally, to take a pano, you must sweep the camera slowly from left to right during the exposure. Now, this would result in a “realistic” perspective, if you could maintain constantly smooth motion and a uniform distance from your subject all the way across, which is impossible unless you’re seated on a dolly and being pushed along a track by four of your friends. So much for reality.

So, what you’re forced to do instead is to twist your body left, remain standing in one place, and be the central pivot point while you pan across yourself until you get all the way to the right. Imagine your body to be a hinge and your arms to be a swinging gate.This creates a crazy amount of spatial distortion not unlike a fisheye effect, and that is my point. Play to that weakness and make it a strength. Leave reality behind and look for patterns, your own abstract designs, in other words, improvements on reality. Panoramas aren’t tools for map-makers. You’re not going to hang your images like tapestries across the east wall of the capitol rotunda. So have some fun doing what reality won’t allow.


EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE. OR NOT.

The Instrument Tray, 2015. Surgical equipment or foodie fantasy?

The Instrument Tray, 2015. Surgical equipment or foodie fantasy?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PART OF THIS BUSINESS OF PHOTOGRAPHY is rifling through the accumulated habits and techniques of a still young art form and trying to not regard any of it as holy law. Relatively speaking, measured against the sprawling annals of painting and sculpture, photography has been on the planet for about a minute and a half, so it’s still not even in its adolescence. Hardly the amount of tradition that designates rules as “essential” or “unbreakable”.

This comes to mind a lot whenever I put together what I call “arrangements” but which others might refer to as “still lifes”. I get into a definition problem in referring to just any combination of inanimate things as a “still life”, since I tend to associate that term with a collection of items that suggest, you, know, a life caught in a “still”……some activity that is suggested just by looking at the objects associated with that activity.

It’s pretty obvious stuff: put together a duck decoy, a hunter’s cap, and a shotgun, and you can almost smell the marshlands where the mallards run. Shove a rubber ball, a doll and a set of blocks up against each other, and it’s “a day in the life of a child”. You don’t show the thrill of a baseball game; instead you suggest it with an antique bubble gum card, a torn stadium ticket, and a weathered ball. It’s Photography 101. When all else fails, throw three pieces of fruit in a bowl and park them next to a hunk of cheese. Inspirational.

Ho bloody hum.

Ho bloody hum.

By contrast, I don’t really think of what I assemble in a shot to be suggestive of a narrative in the traditional way. In fact, I have more fun shoving things up together which fight each other a little bit in terms of “why are these objects all here?” I’d rather ask the viewer to supply his/her own idea of what it’s all about instead of doing a Norman Rockwell number that leads them to an obvious association. In fact, every time I take a “typical” still life, I feel like I am making the props, instead of the photograph, supply the needed interest. It feels like set decoration.

In the above image, just as an example, I decided, for my own weird purposes, to do an alternate take on the typical surgical instrument tray, only using kitchen implements. In taking a look at the medical tools of just a century ago, many of them appear as if they are intended to peel or core instead of heal, anyway, and, similarly, some of the gimmicks in your kitchen drawer look as if they could inflict real pain. Strange? Probably. But, hey, I’m old, my mind wanders, and I’m sick of almost everything on TV. Except for that bit with Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory. Now that’s entertainment.

But I digress. Thing is,”still life” is too restrictive a term (or discipline) for lots of arrangements that you might find fascinating. Just pile stuff up and see what happens. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this composition I’ve been working on with the baby grand piano is nearly complete.

If I can just get my hands on two quarts of motor oil and a kumquat.


THE SHORT AND WINDING ROAD

There is no tradition in photography. There is only now.

There is no tradition in photography. There is only now.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY USED TO LITERALLY BE A MATTER OF MATH. Formulating formulae for harnessing light, predicting the reactivity of chemicals, calculating the interval between wretched and wonderful processing. And all that math, measured in materials, apprenticeship, and learning curves, was expensive. Mistakes were expensive. The time you invested to learn, fail, re-learn, and re-fail was expensive. All of it was a sustained assault on your wallet. It cost you, really cost you, in terms a math whiz could relate to, to be a photographer.

Now, the immediacy of our raw readiness to make a picture is astounding. Well, let’s amend that. To anyone picking up their first camera in the last thirty years, it’s pretty astounding. For those who began shooting ten years ago, it’s kinda cool. And for those falling in love with photography now, today, it’s……normal. Let’s pull that last thought out in the sunshine where we can get a good look at it:

For those just beginning to dabble in photography, the instantaneous gratification of nearly any conceptual wish is normal. Expected. No big deal. And the price of failure? Nil. Non-existent. Was there ever a time when it was a pain, or an effort just to make a picture, you ask Today’s Youth? Answer: not to my knowledge. I think it and I do it. If I don’t like it, I do it again, and again, faster than you can bolt down a burger on a commuter train. It’s just there, like tap water. How can I not be, why should I not be, absolutely fearless?

To take it further, Today’s Youth can learn more in a few months of shooting than their forebears could glean in years. And at an immeasurably small percentage of the sweat, toil, tears and financial investment. They can take a learning curve of rejected photos and failed concepts that used to be a long and winding road for pa and grandpa and compress it into a short and straight walk to the mailbox. And they are not sentimental, since they will not be spending enough time with any technology of any kind long enough to develop a weepy attachment for it, or for “how things used to be”. DSLR? Four-Thirds? Point and Shoot? Hey, anything that lets them take a picture is a camera. Make it so they can flap their eyelash and capture an image, and they’re in.

For some of us, hemmed in by experience, the limits of our technical savvy, and yes, our emotions, photography can be a somewhat formal experience. But for the many coming behind us, it’s just a reflex. A wink of the eye. Any and everything is an extension of their visual brain. Any and everything leads to a picture.

These new shooters will stop at nothing, will quake at nothing, will be awed by nothing, except ideas. They will be bold, because there is no reason not to be. They will take chances, since that, from their vantage point, is the only logical course. Photography is dead, long live photography.

The great awakening is at hand.

 


PENCIL LINE, INK LINE

True Stereophonic Reproduction, 2014. Shot on the fly with an iPhone at my favorite junk store.

True Stereophonic Reproduction, 2014. Shot on the fly with an iPhone at my favorite junk store.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MY FATHER, AS A GRAPHIC ARTIST, USED TO WARN ME ABOUT COMMITTING MYSELF TOO EARLY. Not in terms of personal relationships, but as it applied to the act of drawing. “Always lay down all your potential pencil lines first”, he advised, “and then decide which ones you want to ink.” The message was that flexibility was as valuable a drafting tool as your 2H pencil or your Rapidograph pen, that delaying your final vision often helped you eliminate the earlier drafts and their respective weaknesses. I still value that advice, as it has a current corollary in the making of my photographs, largely as a consequence of the smartphone revolution.

Once phones began packing cameras that could actually deliver an image better than a Crayola shmear on a wet cocktail napkin, photographers who still chiefly relied on their traditional cameras suddenly had the luxury of a kind of optical “sketch pad”; that is, an easy way to pre-visualize a composition with a basic machine that you could use for a study, a dress rehearsal for a more precise re-imagining with a more advanced device. For many of us, the larger display area of a phone can often “make the sale” for a shot in a more compelling way than the smaller monitor on our grown-up camera, and, at the very least, we can judge how a photo will “play” less conspicuously than by lugging about more visually obvious hardware. It’s a fast way to gather a lot of preliminary ideas, especially in locales where you’re free to come back later for the serious shoot.

I especially like trolling through vintage stores, trying to find antique items that, in themselves, make for impromptu still-life subjects. Sometimes, to be honest, I go home with a pocket full of puckey. Sometimes, I decide to go back and do a more thorough shoot of the same subject. And sometimes, as in the above image, I decide that I can live with an original “sketch” with just a little post-tweaking. The exercise does one important thing, in that it reminds you to always be shooting, or at least always thinking about shooting.

I know people who have completely stopped even carrying DSLRs and other, more substantial gear in their everyday shooting, and, while I can’t quite get there yet, I get the idea on many levels. Hey, use a fine stylus, a sharp crayon, or a charred stick, dealer’s choice. Just get the sketch.

 


A PLACE APART

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS USUALLY USE FACES AS THE SOLE BAROMETER OF EMOTION. It’s really easy to use a person’s features as the most obvious cues to one’s inner mind. Scowls, smiles, smirks, downcast eyes, sidelong glances,cries of anguish….these are standard tools in depicting someone as either assimilated into the mass of humanity or cast away, separate and alone.

But faces are only one way of showing people as living in a place apart. Symbolically, there is an equally dramatic effect to be achieved by the simple re-contextualizing of that person in space. The arrangement of space near your subject forces the viewer to conclude that he or she is either in harmony with their surroundings or lonely, solitary, sad even, and you do it without showing so much as a raised eyebrow. This is where composition isn’t just a part of the story, but the story itself.

Context is all.

Context is all.

The woman shown here is most likely just walking from point A to point B, with no undercurrent of real tragedy. But once she takes a short cut down an alley, she can be part of a completely different, even imaginary story. Here the two walls isolate her, herding her into a context where she could be lonely, sad, afraid, furtive. She is walking away from us, and that implies a secret. She is “withdrawing” and that implies defeat. She is without a companion, which can symbolize punishment, banishment, exile. From us? From herself? From the world? Once you start to think openly about it, you realize that placing the subject in space lays the foundation for storytelling, a technique that is easy to create, recalibrate, manipulate.

The space around people is a key player in the drama an image can generate. It can mean, well, whatever you need it to mean. People who exist in a place apart become the centerpieces in strong photographs, and the variability of that strength is in your hands.


IT’S UNNATURAL, NATURALLY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST FREEING PARTS OF PICTURE MAKING IS RELEASING YOURSELF FROM THE RIGIDITY OF REALITY. Wait. What is he babbling about? Don’t photographers specialize in reality?

Well, yeah, the photographers who work at the DMV, the city jail and immigration do. Also the guy in Wal-mart HR who made your first employee badge. Other than that, everyone is pretty much rendering the world the way they see it right this minute, with more revisions or re-thinks coming tomorrow. And beyond.

Color processing, once the sole domain of the “photo finishers” has now been taken back in-house by pretty much everyone, and, even before you snap the shutter, there are fat stacks of options you can exercise to recast the world in your own image.

1/60 sec., f/3.5, ISO 320, 35mm. White Balance set for tungsten.

1/60 sec., f/3.5, ISO 320, 35mm. White Balance set for tungsten.

The practice of bracketing shots has made a bit of a comeback since the advent of High Dynamic Range, or HDR processing. You know the drill: shoot any number of shots of the same subject with varying exposure times, then blend them together. But bracketing has been a “best practice” among shooters for decades, especially in the days of film, where you took a variety of exposures of the same scene so you had coverage, or the increased chance that at least one of the frames was The One. Today, it still makes sense to give yourself a series of color choices by the simple act of taking multiple shots with varying white balances. You can already adjust WB to compensate for the color variances of brilliant sun, incandescent bulbs, tube lights, or shade for a more “natural” look. But using white balance settings counter-intuitively, that is, against “nature”, can give your shots a variety of tonal shifts that can be dramatic in their own right.

In the image above, the normal color balance of the gallery entrance would have rendered the bust off-white and the outer vestibule a light grey. Shooting on a tungsten setting when the prevailing light was incandescent gave the interior room a creamy orange look and amped the vestibule into deep blue, setting the two areas sharply off against each other and creating a kind of “end of day” aspect. I shot this scene with about five different white balances and kept the one I liked. Best of all, a comparison of all my choices could be reviewed in a minute and finished by the time the shutter clicked. Holy instant gratification, Batman.


TERRA INCOGNITA

By MICHAEL PERKINS RANDOMNESS HAS STUBBORNLY ASSERTED ITSELF AS ONE OF THE MOST DECISIVE FORCES IN ALL OF PHOTOGRAPHY.One of the eternal struggles in our craft has been between our intense attempts to reduce the recording of light to a predictable science, and nature’s insistent pushback, allowing things that just happen to shape our results. I think most of our work as individuals is a constant wrestling between these two forces. One moment we fancy ourselves mastering all the variables that create images, and in the next we celebrate the wilding potential of just letting go, and actually celebrating the random effect. I find myself careening between the comfort of all the techniques I have accumulated over a lifetime, the so-called “guarantees” that I’ll capture what I’m looking for, and the giddy discovery that accidentals, or artifacts, somehow found themselves in my pictures despite my best efforts. The problem, for me, is learning to celebrate something wonderful that happened without my consciously causing it.

Brooklyn Bodega, 2014.

Brooklyn Bodega, 2014.

Phone cameras are forcing me to accept a little less control, since, even at their best, they can’t be managed in the way that standard DSLRs can. That leaves a certain number of results to chance, or, more exactly, to a display of the camera’s limits. One one hand, I’m grateful for the shots that I can “save” by using a mobile, since there will always be times that other types camera will be blocked, forbidden, or inconvenient. On the other hand, the results always make me wonder what else might have been possible if I had been completely at the helm in the making of the images. Some of the things I get “on the fly” with a phone camera are actually a bit magical, so that I actually love the things that are “wrong” with the picture. I’m sure this is part of the enjoyment that the lomography crowd derive from working with plastic toy cameras which create totally unpredictable results purely as a result of the camera’s shortcomings. In the above image, the garish register of nearly every color by my iPhone works well with the bizarre collision of dusk, neon, urban textures, even the overblown mystery of what’s going on inside the crazed little bodega shown here. The extreme wide-angle bias of the iPhone also has stretched things into exotic exaggerations of perspective, and the camera’s auto-boosted ISO produces a high level of noise. Does it all work? Yeah, pretty much. I don’t surrender control easily, but I’ve seen enough of the fortunate accidents of photographers from all over the world not to welcome nature’s interventions. I mean, after all, the idea that we’re actually in control is, at best, a pleasant illusion. We don’t really understand lightning, and yet, somehow, we’ve been given the ability to capture it in a box. Strange.


WORK AT A DISADVANTAGE

1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 800, 35mm.

Focus. Scale. Context. Everything’s on the table when you’re trolling for ideas. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 800, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“IS THERE NO ONE ON THIS PLANET TO EVEN CHALLENGE ME??“, shouts a frustrated General Zod in Superman II as he realizes that not one person on Earth (okay, maybe one guy) can give him a fair run for his money. Zod is facing a crisis in personal growth. He is master of his domain (http://www.Ismashedtheworld.com), and it’s a dead bore. No new worlds to conquer. No flexing beyond his comfort zone. Except, you know, for that Kryptonian upstart.

Zod would have related to the average photographer, who also asks if there is “anyone on the planet to challenge him”. Hey, we all walk through the Valley Of The Shadow Of ‘My Mojo’s Gone’. Thing is, you can’t cure a dead patch by waiting for a guy in blue tights to come along and tweak your nose. You have to provide your own tweak, forcing yourself back into the golden mindset you enjoyed back when you were a dumb amateur. You remember, that golden age when your uncertainly actually keened up your awareness, and made you embrace risk. When you did what you could since you didn’t know what you could do.

You gotta put yourself at a disadvantage. Tie one hand behind your back. Wear a blindfold. Or, better yet, make up a “no ideas” list of things that will kick you out of the hammock and make you feel, again, like a beginner. Some ways to go:

1.Shoot with a camera or lens you hate and would rather avoid2.Do a complete shoot forcing yourself to make all the images with a single lens, convenient or not. 3.Use someone else’s camera. 4.Choose a subject that you’ve already covered extensively and dare yourself to show something different in it. 5.Produce a beautiful or compelling image of a subject you loathe. 6.Change the visual context of an overly familiar object (famous building, landmark, etc.) and force your viewer to see it completely differently. 7.Shoot everything in manual. 8.Make something great from a sloppy exposure or an imprecise focus. 9.Go for an entire week straight out of the camera. 10.Shoot naked.

Put yourself behind the.... oh, you get the idea.

Put yourself behind the…. oh, you get the idea.

Okay, that last one was to make sure you’re still awake. Of course, if nudity gets your creative motor running, then by all means, check local ordinances and let your freak flag fly. The point is, Zod didn’t have to wait for Superman. A little self-directed tough love would have got him out of his rut. Comfort is the dread foe of creativity. I’m not saying you have to go all Van Gogh and hack off your ear. But you’d better bleed just a little, or else get used to imitating instead of innovating, repeating instead of re-imagining.


MAGNIFICENT RUIN

Clay pre-firings and molds for bronze bells at Paulo Soleri's Cosanti studios in Paradise Valley, Arizona. 1/20 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Clay pre-firings and molds for bronze bells at Paolo Soleri’s COSANTI studios in Paradise Valley, Arizona. 1/20 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

by MICHAEL PERKINS

IN 1956, ARCHITECT PAOLO SOLERI BEGAN THE FIRST MINIATURE DEMONSTRATION OF WHAT WOULD BECOME HIS LIFE’S WORK, an experimental, self-contained, sustainable community he called Cosanti. Erecting a humble home just miles from his teacher Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound at Taliesin West, in what was then the wide-open desert town of Paradise Valley, Arizona, he started sand-casting enormous concrete domes to serve as the initial building blocks of a new kind of ecological architecture. And, over the next half-century, even as Soleri would call Paradise Valley his home, he would construct bigger versions of his dream city, now renamed Arcosanti, on a vast patch of desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff.

The project, which at his death in 2013 was still unrealized, was funded over the years by the sales of Soleri’s custom fired bronze and clay wind bells, which became prized by Arizona visitors from all over the world. At present, his early dwellings still stand, as do the twisting, psychedelic paths and concrete arches that house his smelting forges, his kilns, the Cosanti visitor center, and a strange spirit of both wonder and dashed dreams. It is a magnificent ruin, a mad and irresistible mixture of textures for photographers.

One of COSANTI's bizarre dwellings, scattered amongst the compound's forges and kilns. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

One of COSANTI’s bizarre dwellings, scattered amongst the compound’s forges and kilns. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Name the kind of light…….brilliant sun, partial shade, catacomb-like shadows, and you’ve got it. Name the material, from wood to stone to concrete to stained glass, and it’s there. The terrain of the place, even though it’s now surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions, still bears the lunar look of a far-flung outpost. It’s Frank Lloyd Wright in The Shire. It’s Fred Flintstone meets Dune. It continues to be a bell factory, and a working architectural foundation. And it’s one of my favorite playgrounds for testing lenses, flexing my muscles, trying stuff. It always acts as a reboot on my frozen brain muscles, a place to un-stall myself.

Here’s to mad dreamers, and the contagion of their dreams.


DO SOMETHING MEANINGLESS

The subject matter doesn't make the photograph. You do. A pure visual arrangement of nothing in particular can at least teach you composition. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

The subject matter doesn’t make the photograph. You do. A pure visual arrangement of nothing in particular can at least teach you composition. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOT WHAT YOU KNOW. SHOOT WHAT YOU LOVE. Those sentences seem like the inevitable “Column A” and “Column B” of photography. And it makes a certain kind of sense. I mean, you’ll make a stronger artistic connection to subject matter that’s near and dear, be it loved ones or beloved hobbies, right? What you know and what you love will always make great pictures, right?

Well….okay, sorta. And sorta not. 

I hate to use the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”, but your photography could actually take a step backwards if it is always based in your comfort zone. Your intimate knowledge of the people or things you are shooting could actually retard or paralyze your forward development, your ability to step back and see these very familiar things in unfamiliar ways.

Might it not be a good thing, from time to time, to photograph something that is meaningless to you, to seek out images that don’t have any emotional or historical context for you? To see a thing, a condition, a trick of the light just for itself, devoid of any previous context is to force yourself to regard it cleanly, without preconception or bias.

Looking for things to shoot that are “meaningless” actually might force you to solve technique problems just for the sake of solving, since the results don’t matter to you personally, other than as creative problems to be solved. I call this process “pureformance” and I believe it is the key to breathing new life into one’s tired old eyes. Shooting pure forms guarantees that your vision is unhampered by habit, unchained from the familiarity that will eventually stifle your imagination.

This way of approaching subjects on their own terms is close to what photojournalists do all the time. They have little say in what they will be assigned to show next. Their subjects will often be something outside their prior experience, and could be something they personally find uninteresting, even repellent. But the idea is to find a story in whatever they approach, and they hone that habit to perfection, as all of us can.

Just by doing something meaningless in a meaningful way.


FRAGMENTING THE FRAME

1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE MADE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT, IN RECENT YEARS,  TO AVOID TAKING A “STRAIGHT SHOT” OUT OF, OR THROUGH A WINDOW, of using that rectangle or square as a conventional means of bordering a shot. Making a picture where a standard view of the world is merely surrounded by a typical frame shows my eye nothing at all, whereas the things that fragment that frame, that break it into smaller pieces, bisecting or even blocking information…..that’s fascinating to me.

This is not an arbitrary attempt to be “arty” or abstract. I simply prefer to build a little mystery into my shots, and a straight out-the-window framing defeats that. My showing everything means the viewer supplies nothing of his own. Conversely, pictures that both reveal and conceal, simultaneously, invite speculation and encourage inquiry. It’s more of a conversation.

Think about it like a love scene in a movie. If every part of “the act” is depicted, it’s not romantic, not sexy. It’s what the director leaves out of the scene that fires the imagination, that makes it a personal creation of your mind. Well-done love scenes let the audience create part of the picture. Showing everything is clinical….boring.

With that in mind, The Normal Eye’s topside menu now has an additional image gallery called Split Decisions, featuring shots that attempt to show what can result when you deliberately break up the normal framing in and out of windows. Some of the shots  wound up doing what I wanted: others came up short, but may convey something to someone else.

As always, let us know what you think, and thanks for looking.


FIND YOURSELF A KID

DSC02897_2_2By MICHAEL PERKINS

“MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS” IS ONLY HALF OF PHOTOGRAPHY. The other half consists of placing yourself in the oncoming path of that runaway truck Experience so that you can’t help getting run over, then trying to get the license plate of the truck to learn something from the crash. You need to keep placing your complacency and comfort in harm’s way in order to advance, to continue your ongoing search for better ways to see. Thus the role models or educational models you choose matter, and matter greatly.

Lately, much as I thrive on wisdom from the masters and elders of photography, I am relying more and more on creative energy and ideas from people who are just learning to take pictures. This may sound like I am taking driving lessons from toddlers instead of licensed instructors, but think about it a moment.

Yes, nothing teaches like experience….seasoned, life-tested experience. Righty right right. But art is about curiosity and fearlessness, and nothing says “open to possibility” like a 20-year-old hosting a podcast on what could happen “if you try this” with a camera. It is the fact that the young are unsure of how things will come out (the curiosity) DSC_0595which impels them to hurry up and try something to find out (the fearlessness). Moreover, if they were raised with only the digital world as a reference point, they are less intimidated by the prospect of failure, since they are basically shooting for free and their universe is one of infinite do-overs. There is no wrong photograph, unless it’s the one you just didn’t try for.

Best of all, photography, always the most democratic of arts, has just become insanely more so, by putting some kind of camera in literally everyone’s fist. There is no more exclusive men’s club entitlement to being a shooter. You just need the will. Ease of operation and distribution means no one can be excluded from the discussion, and this means a tidal wave of input from those just learning to love making pictures.

One joke going around the tech geek community in recent years involves an old lady who calls up Best Buy and frets, “I need to hook up my computer!”, to which the clerk replies, “That’s easy. Got a grandchild?”

Find yourself a path. Find yourself a world of influences and approaches for your photography. And, occasionally, find yourself a kid.